Mela jerked awake as the Dark Rider and Ebona came to an abrupt halt. He lifted her down and pointed to a patch of swampy ground among the trees.
“Go and hide,” he said. “Valeria’s finally got round to sending someone after me â€“ or possibly you. Youâ€™re valuable, little one. I donâ€™t want you caught in the crossfire if this turns into a full blown fight. There’s some water you can hide in over there, but itâ€™s not very pleasant Iâ€™m afraid.”
Mela looked around. Now that she was awake, she could sense the large body of Speakers closing in on them. She didnâ€™t need a second bidding to get out of the way.
“Yes, sir.” She bowed her head and fled among the boulders and into the swamp. She couldnâ€™t use her gills in the fetid water so she kept her head above water. She wanted to watch, anyway, although she wasnâ€™t sure who she wanted to win. He was being so nice to her â€“ which confused her â€“ but he was still an enemy, wasnâ€™t he?
A pack of Lightning Wolves with sparks of electricity running through their coats and a handful of Storm Sprites of the Queenâ€™s own clan emerged from among the trees, while three Thunderbirds landed in the trees around the clearing. This didnâ€™t bode well for the Rider, Mela decided. Yet he and Ebona seemed completely calm.
“Greetings,” The Rider said politely to the leader of the detachment â€“ a Storm Sprite Mela recognised as the Queen’s own brother. “Are you seeking me, Prince Maran?”
Maran hissed in shock at being recognised and named by his quarry, but Mela wasnâ€™t surprised. Heâ€™d known her mother was chief songstress and that they had the Seeker’s Pendant. He was obviously well informed.
“You know me?” Prince Maran growled.
“Youâ€™re hardly low profile, Your Highness, of course I’ve heard of you.â€ The Rider shrugged. â€œQuite apart from the fact that I did some research, since I believe in knowing my enemies, Ebona has spoken of you to me and never in good terms. Your sister trusts you, would-be usurper, and she really shouldnâ€™t.”
“Prince Maran, is this true?” One of the Thunderbird’s asked. Lightning crackled through her feathers, a symptom of her agitation.
“Of course not!” The storm sprite bared his teeth at the bird. “Heâ€™s just trying to set us against each other so he can pick us off!”
The thunderbird floated upwards out of the princeâ€™s reach. “I donâ€™t know … I’ve heard some strange stories recently. Youâ€™ve been seen with some supposed representatives of the Mountain King.”
“Well someone has to. Him and Val not speaking is causing problems. Sheâ€™s being unreasonable. You know that, Tonara. Just because Iâ€™m going behind her back doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™m plotting against her.” He looked round at his troops. “Iâ€™m trying to keep her safe.” But Mela saw the subtle twitch of his hand as he summoned two of the Storm Sprites whoâ€™d seemed unconcerned by the Rider’s accusation.
“Really?” Tonara said. “Queen Valeria isn’t foolish enough to let her differences with the Mountain King influence her tactical decisions. She sent me and Rai on a secret mission several weeks ago to negotiate for her. He told me that heâ€™d had no contact with you when I asked.”
“He lied!” Prince Maran snapped. “They approached me!”
“They did,” Ebona interrupted. “But they were the ones who lied. They do not work for who they claimed. Subversion is afoot in the Mountain King’s kingdom even as it is in Queen Valeria’s.”
“Stop lying for your human, traitor,” Maran growled at her. The unicorn just sighed.
“Unicorns can’t lie!” The Lightning Wolvesâ€™ pack leader interrupted. “Everyone knows that.”
“Sheâ€™s a treacherous heart friend,” Maran said desperately. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as the wolf. “The laws donâ€™t bind her!”
“Since when?” Tonara asked. “No story Iâ€™ve heard says that being born without a heart gem or bonding with a human changed the fundamental nature of a speaker.”
“Tonâ€™s right. At the very least, the Shadow Breed Unicorn believes that youâ€™ve been tricked into plotting against the Queen by someone.” He looked over at Ebona. “Who?”
There was a long pause as Ebona and the rider communed wordlessly. Probably discussing whether to answer. It must be the person heâ€™d mentioned before; the one he hadnâ€™t wanted to tell her about.
“I dare not speak his name,” Ebona said finally. “Nor even his title for it might alert him. He seems to hear when people speak of him in more than general terms. But heâ€™s the one whoâ€™s taken control of our oldest enemy. The enemy we cannot even fight. Well you cannot. I can.”
Mela gave a little shriek of terror that only the Rider seemed to hear. His eyes flicked to her as the others fell into uproar at Ebona’s declaration.
Tonara nearly fell out of the sky and the Lightning Wolf’s fur stood on end. Little bolts of lightning shot from his fur and struck the ground with small bangs. Even Prince Maran looked shocked.
Mela had to crawl out of the water. She couldn’t stay afloat when she was trembling. The dragon lord? He was going up against the dragon lord? Was he mad? She looked back at Prince Maran, whoâ€™d gone white.
“Youâ€™re lying!” he said through clenched teeth. “They came from the Mountain King! They showed me tokens.”
“Haven’t we just been over this, Prince Maran? Ebona can’t lie â€“ sheâ€™s a unicorn,”
“You know too much!” Maran screamed. He tore his dagger from its sheath and leapt at the Rider.